« PreviousContinue »
Religion without having served his apprenticeship as a patient student of the history of the religions of the world. I cannot sum up the advantages of historical study and of the historical spirit in dealing with all the problems of life better than in the words of Mr. John Morley: 'It gives us a view of the ground we stand on. It gives us a solid backing of precedent and experiences. It teaches us where we are. It protects us against imposture and surprise!'1
John Morley, On the Study of Literature, p. 11.
THE MATERIALS FOR THE STUDY OF NATURAL
Language, Myth, Customs and Laws, Sacred Books.
L AVING first determined by means of definition 11 the exact limits of Natural Religion, and having afterwards explained the reasons why the Historical Method seems to be the most advantageous for a truly scientific treatment of the religions of the world, we have now to find out what materials there are accessible to us from which to study the growth and decay of Natural Religion in the widest sense of the word.
These materials may be divided into four classes.
First comes language, which in its continuous growth leads us back to the earliest periods of thought, or, at all events, to periods which cannot be reached by any other kind of evidence.
The second class is formed by what it is the fashion to call mythology, which, as I shall show, is really an inevitable phase in the development of language and thought.
The third class of evidence comprises religious customs and laws, which may be studied either in historical documents, or by actual observation of such customs and laws as are still prevalent among civilised as well as uncivilised races.
The fourth class consists of the Sacred Books of the great religions of the world.
Language as Evidenoe. If, as I hope to show, every word was originally a deed, was, in fact, a creative act, calling into life a concept which did not exist before, it will sound less surprising that it is possible to discover in words, taken by themselves, a record of the most primitive thoughts of mankind. It is true that a dictionary by itself conveys no meaning, and that it is only in a sentence that words become significant. But we know now that originally every word was a sentence. When a man said sar-it, river, he really said, “running (sar) here (it)'; when he said dar-u, tree, he said, 'splitting (dar) here (u).' But men who called their trees 'splitting here,' or what is split, must have been men who had learnt to use trees for certain purposes, and who probably possessed some tools, however rude, to help them in carrying out their work. Men who called their horse a quick runner, as-va, equus, intos, must have been men to whom the horse had become useful as a runner, for there were many wild animals quicker than the horse, though they were not even singled out for a name, but were comprehended under the general term of wild animals.
You will see now how, if we can but find an entrance into the ancient workshop of language, we can still listen there to the earliest thoughts of man. But where is that workshop ?
In order to answer that question, I shall have to
devote some of my next lectures to giving you a short account of the discoveries made by the students of the Science of Language. That science has opened before us a new world, and it will be necessary for me to place before you a map of that new world, though in the broadest outline only, in order that you may be able to watch the earliest migrations, not only of language, but of thought, of myth, of religion, and of law and custom.
Survey of Languages. Aryan Family. Let us begin with Europe, and in Europe with England.
English Have you ever asked yourselves what it means that we speak English, what a language is, what the English language is, where it sprang up or how it was made, and how it came to be spoken in these distant isles, and from thence again over nearly the whole civilised world ?
Nothing seems to me so wonderful as the power which man possesses of ceasing to wonder at what is most wonderful. It has been said with great truth that a sign or wonder can never exist twice, for when it happened the second time we should call it quite natural, and cease to wonder at it. Some philosophers go even further and maintain that a sign or wonder ceases to exist the moment it does exist, because whenever it exists, there must have been a sufficient reason for it, and whatever has a sufficient reason, ceases to be wonderful. Well, whatever the reason may be, we certainly all of us seem to have acquired what Orientals consider a proof of the highest breeding, namely to wonder at nothing, to be surprised by nothing, the old Nil admirari.
1 I have left here this short survey of languages, which I found it necessary to give in my first course of lectures, in order to avoid the necessity of explaining again and again the names and the relationship of the languages in which the religions of the world found their expression. Readers who require fuller information, may consult my Lectures on the Science of Language.
Here we find ourselves in a small island, adjacent to what is a mere promontory of the vast Asiatic continent. And in this small island which we call Great Britain, and in this mere promontory which we call the Continent of Europe, we speak a language which is to all intents and purposes the same as that which is spoken in Ceylon, an island adjacent to the southern promontory of the same Asiatic continent, called the Dekhan or Southern India.
This discovery of the unity of language in India and England is only about a hundred years old, and when it was first announced, it startled some of the most learned and judicious men to that extent that Dugald Stewart, for instance, declared it was an utter impossibility, and that Sanskrit must be an invention of those arch-deceivers, the Brahmans, who wanted to make themselves as good as ourselves, and as old as ourselves ; nay, a great deal better and a great deal older too.
We have recovered from that surprise, and we find now at the beginning of most Latin and Greek grammars a few paragraphs about the Indo-European or Aryan family of speech, and a statement that much may be learnt from Sanskrit, the sacred language of the inhabitants of India, as to the antecedents of our own language, and as to how Latin and Greek became what they are.